Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Coping with Tragedy

For me personally, dealing with an event that is far away like the terror bombing in Boston always seems so surreal.  I was living in Georgia when the Oklahoma City bombing happened in 1995.  I still remember watching CNN and seeing the smoke rolling out of the large hole in the Murrah building.  It was real and yet not real at the same time.  I was so distant in geography - feeling that I couldn't do anything to help.  This inability to make a positive impact may be what made it seem somewhat unreal.  One coping mechanism most human beings use is to distance ourselves emotionally rather than face the grief.

As a person of action, when the tornado hit Piedmont two years ago, I stayed very busy and active in trying to help people put their lives back together.  What helped me to cope with the chaos was to help others cope with the chaos.  The helpless feeling when looking on our brothers and sisters in Boston is difficult.

With the mass shootings such as Columbine or Virginia Tech or Aurora, Colorado or Newtown, Connecticut, we mourn with the victims and grieve with their families.  The perpetrators of the violence are known almost immediately and we are soon given a portrait of them by the media.  We discover their mental illnesses and can put a label (madness) on why it happened.

In the hours following Oklahoma City or 9/11 however, we didn't know immediately the cause for such destruction.  Until we find out who did it, we fear that more attacks may occur.

Was this a Ted Kaczynski-type?  Or was it another Osama bin Laden?

I preached on injustice on Sunday as we looked at the plight of Joseph from Genesis 39 going from slavery to jail even though he didn't do anything wrong.  I'm sure that there were many times when Joseph asked God, "Why me, Lord?"  but the Bible doesn't reflect any soul-searching on his part.

What's clear is that God remains with Joseph in his plight.  It seems clear to me that Joseph's unjust slavery and imprisonment was not caused by God to somehow teach Joseph a lesson.  This doesn't mean that with God's help, Joseph didn't learn anything or didn't come out stronger because of it.

Whenever families go through tragedies such as this, sometimes they look for their own answers because it is
Martin Richard, 8, died in the bombing at the
Boston Marathon.  I look at my own 9 year old
son and my heart aches for his family.
so deeply personal for them. They do ask God, "Why me, Lord?"

It is not uncommon for parents to wonder if they are somehow being punished for their sins when faced with the loss of their children.  This is because we want to have some control over our lives. When children face terminal illness, parents will often seek to bargain with God for healing.  My response to the tornado was to get out and help which is compassionate and faithful but also a way to re-exert control over the chaos.  Similarly, a theological questioning may be a quest for answers - a quest to have some control over the chaos.

We used this prayer on Sunday.  It is written by Katye Fox, a 2000 Masters of Divinity graduate of the Candler School of Theology (my alma mater) and is based on Mark 4:35-41.  I pray that it would be helpful for those in Boston and anyone struggling with the chaos right now.

O Christ, Calmer of the Seas,
    You call us across to the other side.
    You call us to come and go with you
               even as the storms around us swell.
Cry out to the winds, “Be still.”
Cry out to us, “Peace.”
Do this, O Lord,
               so that we can safely arrive on others shores.
               so that we may find within you and within ourselves
                             reminders of the faith we so deeply need.
In your name, O Creator of the water and the wind. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Good Influences

When I was in college, I had one large reservation about becoming a pastor in a church: I didn't think that I wanted to write a paper each week and give a speech on it which was primarily how I saw the task of the sermon. 

The church had done much to shape and nurture me.  At the tender age of 14, our children's minister Virginia Gray asked me to be a leader for 6th grade camp.  Even after getting into trouble at my own senior high camp (a story for another blog post), she called me and asked if I thought I was ready for this responsibility.  I humbly said that I was and she took a chance on me.  It worked out well and I worked that camp each summer for years.

I remained active in the church even through college.  I served as a resident custodian at the Wesley Foundation which was our campus ministry in Stillwater.  Whenever our campus minister, John Rusco, had seminary recruiters show up, he always made sure that I was around to visit with them.  John had a passion for thinking through the faith.  This style resonated with me and had me thinking that maybe some form of ministry would be in my future.

I remember praying about this and asking God if I was really called to be a pastor.  I still didn't like the idea of weekly sermons but I thought to make a compromise.  I enjoyed my summer church internships helping with youth programs and so if a job presented itself, I would work as a youth minister to see if this was really where God was calling me to be.

Shortly after I had come to this decision, the phone rang and it was Lynn Tegeler on the other end.  She told me that New Haven United Methodist Church in Tulsa asked her to apply for their full time youth minister position opening up.  She told them that she already had a job and didn't feel called to work with youth full time but that she knew someone who would be good for the job.  Lynn and I had worked together in the summer for Boston Avenue UMC and in spite of this, she still gave them my name.  

Now I'm not a huge providence guy, but I clearly remember the surreal feeling and asking God, "There's really not much of a choice here, is there?"

I interviewed and was given the job where I got to know Ken Tobler (the senior pastor) and Linda Harker (the children's minister) on that staff. They taught me about working with others on a church staff and while the overwhelming majority of the congregation was great, I did learn that not everyone leads with grace all the time!
Chris Porter took this picture of me sharing my growth and
maturity with Christina Mallory at church camp. Sadly, this
was only a few years ago - it may be that I was
helping her remember her baptism.  

It was a wonderful time for me for growth and maturity.  I felt my call to ministry solidifying.

And yet, I still had this hesitation for preaching...

Fortunately, my frugality came in to help me out. My friend, Van Hawxby was also a youth minister in Arkansas and he was working at a church in Little Rock.  They had money set aside to bring someone in each year to lead a youth retreat.  He told me that his church would pay me $400 to come do this event.  It seemed like a no-brainer to me.  But there was a catch.  You had to preach at the Sunday morning worship service.  It was a pretty big congregation and they also broadcast over local radio.  

I decided that God must be behind this.

I did my best to write a credible sermon.  I practiced it until I had it memorized and had this nervous excitement that Sunday morning.  I preached and found that this was right.  It was what God had been calling me to do all along.  

This was around twenty years ago.  I still have an excitement for preaching and continue to live out my calling as an ordained pastor in the church.  God's calling comes to us both internally and externally.  It was internal in how I was shaped and nurtured in the faith - how my prayers, thoughts and feelings with God moved me to consider this as an option.  It was external in that people in the church interacted with me and pushed me in this direction.  They saw something in me that corresponded to what was going on inside.

If you are wondering about God's call upon your life, I would invite you to be open (maybe even open to checking out this cool link or event). Don't allow hesitations or fears to shut God down.  In the long run, I don't think it will work anyway!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Hear My Faith

Fellow clergy, Jeremy Smith is promoting a synchblog for the upcoming Exploration 2013 event for the United Methodist's General Board on Higher Education and Ministry.  I will be participating and sharing my own answers to the question, "Who called you on the journey of ministry?"

As I begin to think about how I answer this for my upcoming blog, I reconnected with the song, "Seal My Fate" by Belly (it happened to be playing on internet radio).

Seal My Fate by Belly on Grooveshark

Tanya Donnelly's lyrics are just vague enough to lend a great variety to the interpretation. As I'm thinking about call to ministry, the passage from Isaiah's own call to ministry came to me.
Isaiah's Lips Anointed
with Fire
Benjamin West

As Donnelly sings:

  Unholy and dirty words I gathered to me,
 Thinking the point was keep what's mine for me,
 While he's laughing.
 Hear my faith.
 Seal my fate. 

it reminds me of Isaiah's own declaration that he's a man of unclean lips.  In his vision, the angels purify him with fire and he responds, "Here I am, Send Me."

Donnelly also expresses the uncertainty of the spiritual experience:

   And if you think you've finally found the perfect light,
 I hope it's true. 


  I'd like to see it happen. I hope it's true
 'cause I can feel it.
 I hope it's true.

The call of God pulls us in sometimes risky directions that turn our previous plans upside down.  At the end of the day, we hope in faith that it is true.  The song expresses to me a sense that it's almost too good to be true - there is a hesitancy there.

This may be a universal sensation when we encounter grace.